"Do you speak Indian?"
This question perfectly captures the absurd ignorance of the west views India as a monolithic entity. India boasts a staggering diversity of over 1,500 languages and a multitude of distinct regional cultures, each with its own unique nuances that can vary from state to state and even within a single state. Yet, despite this rich tapestry, these multifaceted identities are often lumped together under the generic label of 'Brown'. This oversimplification is precisely what Mathushaa Sagthidas challenges in her project NOT JUST BROWN, NOT JUST INDIAN. Through her lens, she captures the multifaceted and vibrant stories of British South Asians, showcasing the richness of their diverse cultural backgrounds and challenging the homogenization of South Asian identity in Western perceptions.
This project emerged from a genuine frustration with the lack of authentic representation of South Asians in publications and galleries, which often focused on stolen artefacts or religious aspects, neglecting the richness and diversity of South Asian cultures. Mathushaa Sagthidas, who initially conceived the project while in university, was finally able to bring her vision to life with the support of Getty Images, Creative Access, and iStock. The goal was not only to create relatable content but also to resonate with London's diverse South Asian communities.
Watch a snippet of behind the scenes below.
One of the captivating aspects of this project is how it delves into the intricacies of each country's culture. For instance, the segment dedicated to India spotlights the vibrant celebration of Holi through the creation of Rangoli patterns, symbolizing happiness and welcoming the goddess of wealth. Afghanistan explores the theme of familial love and nostalgia, portraying the close bonds shared by cousins. Nepal emphasizes sisterhood and caste influences, showcasing traditional wear that reflects their family's caste. Sri Lanka/Tamil Eelam delves into the history and lifestyle of grandmothers, highlighting the differences and similarities between Tamil and Sinhala cultures. Bangladesh captures the beauty and festivities of Pôhela Boishakh, the Bengali New Year, emphasizing the importance of family visits and the tradition of wearing red and white attire. Pakistan delves into beauty traditions like hair oiling and the use of surma (kohl eyeliner) as natural beauty hacks.
In her creative journey, Mathushaa draws inspiration from her mother, who plays a pivotal role in shaping her understanding of her Tamil identity and cultural traditions. Growing up, her household was steeped in the richness of Tamil customs, instilling in her a deep reverence and appreciation for her culture. Perhaps it was this curiosity and upbringing that ignited her passion to share these vibrant and often overlooked stories through her project. Mathushaa's work creates a vital space for authentic representation and storytelling, depicting the diverse cultures of the South Asian landscape with their distinct identities, breathing life into narratives that deserve to be celebrated and cherished.